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Small Small Thing documents the story of 7-year-old Liberian rape victim Olivia Zinnah, shown here at JFK Hospital in Monrovia.

Special section

Festival gives voice to filmmakers missing from the mainstream

Women’s Film Festival features 47 films, all by and about women

Joyce Marcel, a regular contributor of special features to The Commons and a Voices columnist, has been offering an overview/preview of the Women’s Film Festival for years.

DUMMERSTON—As we move ever hopefully toward spring, film lovers are asking the burning question: What does the Women’s Film Festival have for us this year?

The answer is, as always, a mixed bag of excellence and interest.

The theme is quite general: films by women and about women. But since women encompass more than half of the human race, that makes for quite a range.

And speaking of range, this year’s festival is huge — 42 films! — and will run over the course of three weeks, from a Friday night gala on March 6 to Sunday, March 22. Films will be shown at both the Latchis Theatre and the New England Youth Theatre.

The 29 full-length films and 13 shorts were winnowed from more than 160 films that the selection committee previewed. The festival, as always, is a fundraiser for the Women’s Freedom Center.

“You’re so thankful to find so many great films,” said Vickie Sterling, the co-executive director of the center and a member of the selection committee. “Just the amount of viewing and decision making is really challenging. When you’ve got just a handful of great films, it’s easier. But when you’ve got so many?

“We’ve tried to have a well-rounded festival. We’re heavy on documentaries, and that’s usually the case, because it’s hard for women to get funding for feature films. Documentaries cost less, so you find more women doing that.

“And this year, one of the things that stood out was the number of great short films. We have more shorts than we ever had, and they are just fantastic.”

One of Sterling’s favorite short films — and one of mine — is Rúbaí, an 11-minute 2013 narrative Irish film in Gaelic (with subtitles) by Louise Ni Fhiannachta.

It’s named for and about a 7-year-old girl who declares herself an atheist and refuses to take First Holy Communion. In Catholic Ireland this, of course, offends her priest, her teacher, and her mother. The pressure on her to conform is fierce, but Rúbaí is determined and withstands it all. Only at the film’s emotional climax do we find out why her stance is justified.

Think about it — a gifted child actor, a great story, and a narrative film by a woman in Gaelic? Wow!

“Oh, my god! Such a gem!” says Sterling.

* * *

Binge-viewing festival films, which I did over the past few weeks, gives me a rare opportunity to get inside the heads of 47 unique female writers, directors and producers.

These women give me the chance to learn, to think, to evaluate, and to use my critical faculties.

Their films entertain me, certainly. But more importantly, they open me up to new ideas, stir up buried feelings, introduce me to extraordinary people I would not ordinarily have a chance to know about, raise my consciousness, demand that I examine comfortable old prejudices and, occasionally, smash me in the face with a dearly-loved conventional way of thinking that I can no longer maintain.

Those are the films I love most.

This year, we get to enjoy a tender lesbian love story. We meet a woman with balls of steel who walks down the face of tall buildings.

We learn about the astonishing life of a world-famous ballerina cut down by polio at the height of her career. We see how parental loss can so damage the self esteem of a stylish young woman that she tattoos the word “bitch” on her face.

We hang out with a group of young musicians who struggle to combine parenthood with touring. We get another of those tragic and disturbing stories from Africa about the mistreatment of women.

“It was an interesting year in that there were a number of sports-related films,” Sterling said. “That doesn’t often happen. We have two films about boxing, one about wrestling, another about volleyball, and one about women’s professional cycling.

“Aside from those, I’d say there’s great diversity,” she continued. “We’ve got a couple of films about musicians, one about a Romani poetess, another about a Broadway star, and films about breastfeeding, fashion, homelessness, mental health, immigration, and more.”

* * *

The festival opens with a feel-good film about six fascinating older British women who defy age and convention.

Fabulous Fashionistas, by Sue Bourne, is part of a wonderful trend to celebrate elderly women with great style who dress and act only to please themselves. No plastic surgery or Botox here.

My favorite person was an imperious 91-year-old baroness who sits in the House of Lords and has strong opinions about almost everything. She reminds me greatly of the part Maggie Smith plays on Downton Abbey.

“The moment you start letting everything go is the moment when you’re old,” the baroness says.

Also featured is Gillian Lynne, the still-supple-and-chic 87-year-old dancer and choreographer (Cats and The Phantom of the Opera), who is in a happy marriage with an adoring man 27 years younger than herself. Sex and exercise keeps you young — I’m certain of it.

“We’re all terminal,” Lynne says. “The older you get, the more terminal you get. You think about death, but you choose life.”

Speaking of dancers, if you want your heart broken with grace and elegance, you must see Afternoon of a Faun, the documentary by Nancy Buirski about the great American ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq. This is a legendary, mythic, almost unbelievable story. (Be warned, though; the soundtrack has way too much music by Achille-Claude Debussy and might put you to sleep.)

This film was shown as part of PBS’s American Masters series, and it is a luxury to have it in Brattleboro on a large screen.

Before fate intervened, the beautiful and talented Le Clercq was living her dream. She was the famous choreographer George Balanchine’s muse as well as his wife, and he made many dances “on her,” as they say.

Then tragedy struck: She got polio while on tour in Europe, and she never walked again.

In a cruel irony, her great dance partner Jacques d’Amboise tells the camera that before going on that tour, all the dancers lined up on stage to get the new polio vaccine. Le Clercq stepped out of line; she said she would get the shot when she returned. How tragic. D’Amboise calls her story “mythic.”

The film gives us multiple opportunities to see Le Clercq dancing, as well as footage of her chapter of life in a wheelchair.

Balanchine was remarkably attentive while he still thought she would be able to dance. Then he divorced her. Still, she found ways to live and to teach and was still beautiful when she died at 80.

* * *

Not all dancers live tragic lives. I cannot recommend more highly Catherine Gund’s film Born to Fly, about the extreme-action choreographer and movement visionary Elizabeth Streb, who received a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant in 1997.

All Streb wants is “to see a human being fly.” Her dancers hurl themselves through plates of glass, throw themselves at glass windows, fall from heights in groups and, with extreme rigging, jump off London’s Millennium Bridge.

For a climax, Streb — at age 60 — and two of her dancers walk down the face of a 10-story-tall glass building.

One of her dancers says, “Pain is just one way of feeling alive.” Another explains how she broke her back doing Streb’s choreography.

Certainly, danger lurks — but for those who have the physical strength and grace of movement to be Streb dancers, the highs are ecstatically high.

“Action has not reached its full potential as a form of experience for the human race,” Streb says. “And I want to hit it up to the stratosphere for everyone to see.”

“When I hit my target correctly, people quake inside because they recognize that physical movement and feel included in the experience,” she says.

Streb is an extraordinary woman, and this is a mesmerizing film.

* * *

Even though I wasn’t a fan of the music, I enjoyed Come Worry With Us!, a 2013 Canadian documentary by Helene Klodawsky about her travels with the Montreal band, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. Klodawsky turns a curious eye on the band members as they struggle to combine family life with art.

“How can it be possible to be the parent I want to be and earn a living doing what I want?” one of the musicians asks. “Or is it the best thing showing a kid that it’s possible?”

These thoughtful musicians — a young married couple, another young woman, and several young men — must deal with gender roles, keeping ticket prices affordable, living on a tour bus with a child, and making a living in music now that the Internet has trashed the recording industry.

Competition is fierce, one musician points out.

“There are a lot of bands on the road. No one buys records. Apple is getting rich, not the people making the content.

“It feels like the last days of Vaudeville. We’re like canaries in a coal mine, where self-employment and self-promotion have replaced job security and uncertainty becomes a way of life for all.”

* * *

The film that most destroyed me is Small Small Thing, a 2013 documentary by Jessica Vale and Nika Offenbac.

It’s the story of tiny Olivia Zinnah of Liberia, who was traumatically raped by a relative in her bush town at the age of 6 and suffered the destruction of her genitals as well as a fistula — a tear — in her colon, so that she could not control evacuation. Her mother, believing her condition was caused by witchcraft, hid her in misery for years.

Finally, the rapist was accused; the accusation tore the village apart. Then Olivia was brought to Monrovia, the capital, for medical care. A colostomy bag made this beautiful child, with velvety skin and huge dark eyes, presentable again. She could smile. She could go to school. Doctors recommended she wait to have the surgery to fix her torn and warped genitalia until she was much, much older.

Rape, especially child rape — it is estimated that 60 percent of Liberian rape victims are children between ages 5 and 13 — is the most reported crime in the country. It leaves me speechless with rage.

But it gets worse.

A woman explains that rape is inevitable in a land where people have suffered through a long and vicious civil war. It seems that the men who were once captains and commanders — and who had the power to “call any girl and put a gun to her head” to rape her during the war — now suffer from PTSD.

“They are ordinary. Not important. Nobody wants to be close to them. They have a flashback and get angry and go and do evil,” she says.

So, PTSD as an acceptable explanation for child rape! Great!

Young girls who are raped are often thrown out of their villages. They work the streets in the city, where they can be had for sex for 15 cents an hour. We learn that Olivia’s mother was also raped.

It seems like an endless cycle of violence — and this in a country where a woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was elected president after the war ended. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Recently, she launched an anti-rape campaign.

But there’s no happy happy ending here. And that’s not a small small thing.

* * *

How can I focus my anger on the Liberians when I see a film like Lucky, a 2014 documentary by Laura Checkoway, about a throwaway young woman living, at the start of the film, on the streets of New York?

Fortunately or unfortunately for the title character, 30-year-old Lucky, she has style to burn. Lots of style. Street style. She’s a charismatic little enchanter who wants to be a star and has star power when she’s “on” — which means whenever she can get a camera to point her way. She’s so eye-catching that the festival is even using her image in its advertising.

Checkoway, a music journalist, became captivated by Lucky and filmed her for five years.

Unfortunately, Lucky’s sense of style has led her to tattoo her face as well as her body, and with a talent for self-loathing, she has the word “bitch” running down one cheek, a big black spider in a web on the other cheek, and “Fear of God” on her eyelids.

“I put my pain onto my skin,” she says.

The tattoos mean that Lucky’s not going to get a job as a nurse’s aide — she is rejected when she shows up for the interview. She’s already worked as a stripper, sold drugs, and lived in shelters. She’s had two children, one of whom lives with her (the other has been adopted and lives in Florida, although she’s still in touch). Lucky, who now identifies as a lesbian, certainly knows how to work the system.

Lucky and her sister, Fantasy, are both throwaways. We learn — as they learn — that their parents were drug addicts who died young, leaving their children to fend for themselves. The possibility for some badly needed stability for these women leavens this documentary.

* * *

The loveliest film I previewed was Tru Love, a lesbian love story out of Canada by Kate Johnston and Shauna MacDonald. Although the plot is hackneyed in the extreme, the actors — including Johnston, who plays a lesbian Don Juan named Tru — and the mother and daughter she becomes involved with, are enchanting. The film is the winner of 14 international film festival awards.

While Johnston, as Tru, is incredibly appealing, it’s the beautiful 60-year-old mother, played by Kate Trotter, who seems to be lit from within.

“Triangles of ice, of tension,” says Johnston. “Tru (friend), Alice (mother), and Suzanne (daughter) are three women, each quietly frozen in their lives. They are all yearning separately, estranged in their own way from themselves or each other, each needing to break free from constraint, to be ‘cracked open’ in their hearts, in their lives.

“As the story opens and progresses, an unexpected attraction builds between Tru and Alice, and Suzanne becomes increasingly threatened. This triangle tightens, closing in on itself, compressing and colliding until it shatters like tiny diamonds of ice and explodes into a rush of emotion, eventually setting each character free.”

* * *

These are just some of the festival’s offerings. Most are Kickstarter films, or friends-and-family financed films, which means that the filmmakers’ passion had to last while they endured long periods of fundraising. Passion films make the best films.

“If people are wanting something different than what they find in mainstream theaters, come to the festival,” Sterling said. “There’s something for everyone.”

“In a year when there were no female-centered best films nominated by the Hollywood Academy, when women are still missing from the mainstream, here are some great films you can’t see anywhere else,” Sterling adds.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #295 (Wednesday, March 4, 2015). This story appeared on page C1.

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